Spartan (15)

Growing up is hard to do
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The Independent Culture

If David Mamet's dialogue were ever tested for steroids he would be banned from screenwriting for life. Whether it's one of his long-con movies (House of Games, The Spanish Prisoner), a desperate-men ensemble (Glengarry Glen Ross) or moody chamber piece (American Buffalo), his characters tend to talk in sharp, staccato exchanges of pure aggression, jabbing and feinting around one another like boxers. There is a moment early on in his new one, Spartan, when one man offers his name to another in an overture of friendship, but is cut short: "Do I need to know? If I want camaraderie I'll join the Masons". Charmed, I'm sure.

This brusque tongue belongs to Robert Scott (Val Kilmer), a Special Ops soldier charged with recovering the President's kidnapped daughter (Kristen Bell) but finding a trail that leads crookedly towards Conspiracyville, USA. Scott's search-and-rescue mission is terminated when news of the girl's alleged drowning comes through, though his rookie partner Curtis (Derek Luke) believes it's a cover-up and that the girl has been abducted by - not to put too fine a point on it - a gang of Arab whore-masters. Scott is compelled to acknowledge the truth, and learns that the real enemy is closer to home than he realised.

The title of the picture derives from a legend that Leonidas, the king of Sparta, when asked for help by a neighbouring state, would send just one man. It isn't made clear whether this policy illustrates the king's willingness to doom the man or the man's particular fitness for the task, but the ambiguity resonates in any case, and it not only gives Kilmer one of his best roles in years but reminds us why anyone might have liked him in the first place. Puffier around the jowls and no longer pretty, he alternates a certain weary calm with spasms of pitbull ferocity, such as the moment he picks up an uncooperative brothel-keeper and shakes the vital information out of her. I wonder if this behaviour stirred fond memories for Joel Schumacher of the time when he and Kilmer worked together on Batman Forever.

There is good support from the Special Ops team - tense, meaty guys in white shirts and ties - though the press notes mystifyingly omit to mention the name of the actress who plays an important minor role in the film's endgame. William H Macy, as an unreliable spook, is rather underused.

The Mamet style is apt to polarise viewers: either you go with its headlong, hard-ass machismo or you wonder why his characters don't quite talk like other human beings. I have a foot in either camp, and enjoy the oddly emphatic dialogue without feeling very convinced by it.

But I did have some trouble swallowing the bitter medicine distilled from Spartan's political grubbing. The implication within its conspiratorial plotting is that there are no limits to what a US administration would do, including the cold-blooded sacrifice of a President's daughter, to ensure re-election. Certainly you wouldn't lose money betting on the hypocrisy and incompetence of Bush and his cronies, but you'd have to be either cuckoo or Michael Moore to give this the nod.

The problem with 13 Going On 30 is the nagging reminder that you've seen this particular body-swap gimmick done in much funnier and friskier fashion: in a word, Big. It's 1987 and Jenna longs to be "30, flirty and thriving" instead of a 13-year-old with braces on her teeth. Hey presto, one morning she awakes to find herself in 2004, magically transformed into a willowy 30-year-old with a fab New York apartment and a job editing a women's mag, Poise.

Gary Winick's film, scripted by Josh Goldsmith and Cathy Yuspa, has a potential source of fun not just with body-swap shenanigans (Jenna finds she now has breasts) but with time-lapse goofery: to Jenna, mobile phones are a puzzlement, and her music of choice is Thriller by Michael Jackson (he of the 13 going on 30 face-lifts) - the homage dance sequence is the best thing in the film.

As the adolescent in a woman's body, Jennifer Garner is sweetly innocent and gawky, catching both the artlessness and exuberance of a girl who's suddenly been granted licence to shop and stay up late. And as the bloke-next-door she once loved but abandoned, Mark Ruffalo also catches an answering boyishness that only falters into embarrassment at the end.

But you keep spotting moments when the film misses a trick: when in Big Tom Hanks turned up at a corporate bash wearing a white Liberace tailcoat, it felt exactly like the kind of thing a 13-year-old boy would imagine as appropriate evening wear. When Jenna shows up at her fashion-magazine party, there's nothing about her clothes that would give her away either as a teenage girl or a 1987 throwback. And casually tossing away pineapple rinds from her pina colada just isn't as funny as Hanks disgustedly spitting out Beluga caviar into his napkin.

Without perhaps meaning to, the film too quickly closes the gap between Jenna's 13- and 30-year-old self, leaving the comedy of difference with no room to manoeuvre. It inadvertently marks a modern sociological shift: while teenage girls are dressing to look like 30-year-olds, 30-year-olds are increasingly desperate to look like teenagers. This was an irony outlined rather more incisively by the recent teens-from-hell movie Thirteen. The film wants to make us hanker for the joys of lost innocence and true love, but the brainwave of Jenna's touchy-feely revamping of her magazine isn't really an adequate expression of anything - apart from the triviality of women's glossies.

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